Review: The Art of War for Writers, by James Scott Bell

Note:  Typically I post my reviews on Brabble.  However, as this book is specifically dedicated to writing, I thought I’d include it here as well.  If you are subscribed to both I apologize for the double post!

Another note: Whenever I post a review I include a link to make things easier for you, the reader.  I do not make a profit from my recommendations.

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I’ve always assumed that if one is creative enough to write well they’ll never succeed in business.  Good marketing does take creativity, it’s true.  But the business end of “show business”, be it acting, writing, music, you name it, is usually the last thing the muse has time for.

It was a rude shock when I discovered that to be a successfully published author one must be equally successful in business.  I look at the wide world of “The Suits” with alarm, fear, and dread.  It makes me want to slink away and hide.  Fortunately, there are people like James Scott Bell in the world.

sun-tzus-the-art-of-war-a-52-brilliant-ideas-interpretation.1I’m big fan of eastern philosophy, so I thought I knew what to expect when I picked up “The Art of War for Writers“.  The original “Art of War”, a military treatise written by Sun Tzu around 500 BC, is a strategic guide that can be applied to nearly any situation.  When I was in college it was the “big thing” to read, especially if you were in pursuit of an MBA.  When I saw it applied to writing I pounced on a copy without hesitation.

This book is one of the happier surprises I’ve had in some time.  The original “Art of War” is an outstanding book, but to get the most out of it you’d be well advised to take it slowly and really think about what Sun Tzu is trying to explain.  Mulling the various applications is what takes so long, as the book is quite short.  Unlike its source material, “The Art of War for Writers” is an extremely user-friendly read.  In the introduction he explains “…the publishing business is a messy affair… there are many obstacles on the way to publication… it seems daunting and down-right hostile out there.”

Ah, says me, this guy speaks my language!

“I am, like you, a writer.  We understand each other.  We are not like other people.  We are, in fact, pitiable wretches.”

HA!!  I’m sold.

ArtofWarforWritersThe Art of War For Writers stays focused on three main ideas: reconnaissance (mental focus), tactics (the craft of writing) and strategy (the wilds of publication).  I was pleased to discover that while he does include “how to” tips for the creation of a novel (he is, after all, a writing coach!) James Scott Bell never strays far from the topic of publication.  THAT is what I really need to know!

One of the best surprises in the book is the tone.  Sun Tzu is very straightforward, very matter-of-fact.  What else would you expect from a Chinese general who lived 2,500 years ago?  James Scott Bell, on the other hand, is warm and encouraging.  He spends a good portion of the book acting as your personal cheerleader while at the same time managing to keep things real.  It’s a fine line, but he walks it well.  After reading the book I found that not only had I learned a great deal, but I was calm, focused and optimistic about my eventual success.

Sun Tzu would be proud.

Easing into Scrivener

Like so many, I found Scrivener intimidating when I first encountered it. Now I can’t imagine writing without it. Here’s a great article featuring Gwen Hernandez, author of Scrivener for Dummies, to help ease down the intimidation factor a bit.

Writers In The Storm Blog

A few months ago I won a copy of Scrivener. Since so many author friends rave about how fabulous it is, I promptly installed the software and launched it. Then stared. Ummm … now what. I was two-thirds of the way into my WIP and the idea of learning a new software and slogging through the rest of the book did me in. But how lucky am I that the amazing Gwen Hernandez, author of Scrivener for Dummies, is a chapter mate and was kind enough to answer some questions. So for anyone else tempted, but hesitant, read on! – Orly Konig-Lopez

And since she’s so amazing, Gwen has offered free enrollment for either her February or September Scrivener class to one lucky WITS reader. Comment on the blog, and you’ll be entered to win. UPDATE – the winner of the drawing is Pamela Aares.

062_Gwen_040711_CropQ. When did you…

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Texas chili cook off

I DID NOT WRITE THIS

This is an oldie, but every time I read it I’m in tears by the end.  I looked it up on Snopes to verify the truth of the matter, but came away empty handed.  True or no, it is 100% hilarious.

If you can read this whole story without laughing, then there’s no hope for you. I was crying by the end. This is an actual account as relayed to paramedics at a chili cook-off in Texas

Note: Please take time to read this slowly. If you pay attention to the first two judges, the reaction of the third judge is even better. For those of you who have lived in Texas , you know how true this is. They actually have a Chili Cook-off about the time Halloween comes around. It takes up a major portion of a parking lot at the San Antonio City Park . Judge #3 was an inexperienced Chili taster named Frank, who was visiting from Springfield, IL.

Frank: ‘Recently, I was honored to be selected as a judge at a chili cook-off. The original person called in sick at the last moment and I happened to be standing there at the judge’s table, asking for directions to the Coors Light truck, when the call came in. I was assured by the other two judges (Native Texans) that the chili wouldn’t be all that spicy; and, besides, they told me I could have free beer during the tasting, so I accepted and became Judge 3.’

Here are the scorecard notes from the event:

CHILI # 1 – MIKE’S MANIAC MONSTER CHILI

Judge # 1 — A little too heavy on the tomato. Amusing kick.

Judge # 2 — Nice, smooth tomato flavor. Very mild.

Judge # 3 (Frank) — Holy crap, what the hell is this stuff? You could remove dried paint from your driveway. Took me two beers to put the flames out. I hope that’s the worst one. These Texans are crazy.

CHILI # 2 – AUSTIN ‘S AFTERBURNER CHILI

Judge # 1 — Smoky, with a hint of pork. Slight jalapeno tang.

Judge # 2 — Exciting BBQ flavor, needs more peppers to be taken seriously.

Judge # 3 — Keep this out of the reach of children. I’m not sure what I’m supposed to taste besides pain. I had to wave off two people who wanted to give me the Heimlich maneuver. They had to rush in more beer when they saw the look on my face.

CHILI # 3 – FRED’S FAMOUS BURN DOWN THE BARN CHILI

Judge # 1 — Excellent firehouse chili. Great kick.

Judge # 2 — A bit salty, good use of peppers.

Judge # 3 — Call the EPA. I’ve located a uranium spill. My nose feels like I have been snorting Drano. Everyone knows the routine by now. Get me more beer before I ignite. Barmaid pounded me on the back, now my backbone is in the front part of my chest. I’m getting s***-faced from all of the beer.

CHILI # 4 – BUBBA’S BLACK MAGIC

Judge # 1 — Black bean chili with almost no spice. Disappointing.

Judge # 2 — Hint of lime in the black beans. Good side dish for fish or other mild foods, not much of a chili.

Judge # 3 — I felt something scraping across my tongue, but was unable to taste it. Is it possible to burn out taste buds? Sally, the beer maid, was standing behind me with fresh refills. This 300 lb. woman is starting to look HOT … just like this nuclear waste I’m eating! Is chili an aphrodisiac?

CHILI # 5 – LISA’S LEGAL LIP REMOVER

Judge # 1 — Meaty, strong chili. Cayenne peppers freshly ground, adding considerable kick. Very impressive.

Judge # 2 — Chili using shredded beef, could use more tomato. Must admit the cayenne peppers make a strong statement.

Judge # 3 — My ears are ringing, sweat is pouring off my forehead and I can no longer focus my eyes. I farted, and four people behind me needed paramedics. The contestant seemed offended when I told her that her chili had given me brain damage. Sally saved my tongue from bleeding by pouring beer directly on it from the pitcher. I wonder if I’m burning my lips off. It really ticks me off that the other judges asked me to stop screaming. Screw them.

CHILI # 6 – VERA’S VERY VEGETARIAN VARIETY

Judge # 1 — Thin yet bold vegetarian variety chili. Good balance of spices and peppers.

Judge # 2 — The best yet Aggressive use of peppers, onions, garlic. Superb.

Judge # 3 — My intestines are now a straight pipe filled with gaseous, sulfuric flames. I crapped on myself when I farted, and I’m worried it will eat through the chair. No one seems inclined to stand behind me except Sally. Can’t feel my lips anymore. I need to wipe my butt with a snow cone.

CHILI # 7 – SUSAN’S SCREAMING SENSATION CHILI

Judge # 1 — A mediocre chili with too much reliance on canned peppers.

Judge # 2 — Ho hum, tastes as if the chef literally threw in a can of chili peppers at the last moment. **I should take note that I am worried about judge number 3. He appears to be in a bit of distress as he is cursing uncontrollably.

Judge # 3 — You could put a grenade in my mouth, pull the pin, and I wouldn’t feel a thing. I’ve lost sight in one eye, and the world sounds like it is made of rushing water. My shirt is covered with chili, which slid unnoticed out of my mouth My pants are full of lava to match my shirt. At least during the autopsy, they’ll know what killed me. I’ve decided to stop breathing. It’s too painful. Screw it; I’m not getting any oxygen anyway. If I need air, I’ll just suck it in through the 4-inch hole in my stomach.

CHILI # 8 – BIG TOM’S TOENAIL CURLING CHILI

Judge # 1 — The perfect ending, this is a nice blend chili. Not too bold but spicy enough to declare its existence.

Judge # 2 — This final entry is a good, balanced chili. Neither mild nor hot. Sorry to see that most of it was lost when Judge #3 farted, passed out, fell over and pulled the chili pot down on top of himself. Not sure if he’s going to make it. Poor feller, wonder how he’d have reacted to really hot chili?

Judge # 3 – No Report

What it’s like to write a flop?

I didn’t write this.  Obviously.  But I like it.  I’m not too worried about the public reception of my work    The only audience I strive to satisfy is myself.  However, should this ever come to pass, I’ll read this article again.

What’s It Like to Flop at the Box Office?

by Sean Hood

When you work “above the line” on a movie (writer, director, actor, producer, etc.) watching it flop at the box office is devastating. I had such an experience during the opening weekend of Conan the Barbarian 3D.

A movie’s opening day is analogous to a political election night. Although I’ve never worked in politics, I remember having similar feelings of disappointment and disillusionment when my candidate lost a presidential bid, so I imagine that working as a speechwriter or a fundraiser for the losing campaign would feel about the same as working on an unsuccessful film.

One joins a movie production, the same way one might join a campaign, years before the actual release/election, and in the beginning one is filled with hope, enthusiasm and belief. I joined the Conan team, having loved the character in comic books and the stories of Robert E. Howard, filled with the same kind of raw energy and drive that one needs in politics.

Any film production, like a long grueling campaign over months and years, is filled with crisis, compromise, exhaustion, conflict, elation, and blind faith that if one just works harder, the results will turn out all right in the end. During that process whatever anger, frustration, or disagreement you have with the candidate/film you keep to yourself. Privately you may oppose various decisions, strategies, or compromises; you may learn things about the candidate that cloud your resolve and shake your confidence, but you soldier on, committed to the end. You rationalize it along the way by imagining that the struggle will be worth it when the candidate wins.

A few months before release, “tracking numbers” play the role in movies that polls play in politics. It’s easy to get caught up in this excitement, like a college volunteer handing out fliers for Howard Dean. (Months before Conan was released many close to the production believed it would open like last year’s The Expendables.) As the release date approaches and the tracking numbers start to fall, you start adjusting expectations, but always with a kind of desperate optimism. “I don’t believe the polls,” say the smiling candidates.

You hope that advertising and word of mouth will improve the numbers, and even as the numbers get tighter and the omens get darker, you keep telling yourself that things will turn around, that your guy will surprise the experts and pollsters. You stay optimistic. You begin selectively ignoring bad news and highlighting the good. You make the best of it. You believe.

In the days before the release, you get all sorts of enthusiastic congratulations from friends and family. Everyone seems to believe it will go well, and everyone has something positive to say, so you allow yourself to get swept up in it.

You tell yourself to just enjoy the process. That whether you succeed or fail, win or lose, it will be fine. You pretend to be Zen. You adopt detachment, and ironic humor, while secretly praying for a miracle.

The Friday night of the release is like the Tuesday night of an election. “Exit polls” are taken of people leaving the theater, and estimated box office numbers start leaking out in the afternoon, like early ballot returns. You are glued to your computer, clicking wildly over websites, chatting nonstop with peers, and calling anyone and everyone to find out what they’ve heard. Have any numbers come back yet? That’s when your stomach starts to drop.

By about 9 PM its clear when your “candidate” has lost by a startlingly wide margin, more than you or even the most pessimistic political observers could have predicted. With a movie its much the same: trade[s] call the weekend winners and losers based on projections. That’s when the reality of the loss sinks in, and you don’t sleep the rest of the night.

For the next couple of days, you walk in a daze, and your friends and family offer kind words, but mostly avoid the subject. Since you had planned (ardently believed, despite it all) that success would propel you to new appointments and opportunities, you find yourself at a loss about what to do next. It can all seem very grim.

You make light of it, of course. You joke and shrug. But the blow to your ego and reputation can’t be brushed off. Reviewers, even when they were positive, mocked Conan The Barbarian for its lack of story, lack of characterization, and lack of wit. This doesn’t speak well of the screenwriting – and any filmmaker who tells you s/he “doesn’t read reviews” just doesn’t want to admit how much they sting.

Unfortunately, the work I do as a script doctor is hard to defend if the movie flops. I know that those who have read my Conan shooting script agree that much of the work I did on story and character never made it to screen. I myself know that given the difficulties of rewriting a script in the middle of production, I made vast improvements on the draft that came before me. But its still much like doing great work on a losing campaign. All anyone in the general public knows, all anyone in the industry remembers, is the flop. A loss is a loss.

But one thought this morning has lightened my mood:

My father is a retired trumpet player. I remember, when I was a boy, watching him spend months preparing for an audition with a famous philharmonic. Trumpet positions in major orchestras only become available once every few years. Hundreds of world class players will fly in to try out for these positions from all over the world. I remember my dad coming home from this competition, one that he desperately wanted to win, one that he desperately needed to win because work was so hard to come by. Out of hundreds of candidates and days of auditions and callbacks, my father came in… second.

It was devastating for him. He looked completely numb. To come that close and lose tore out his heart. But the next morning, at 6:00 AM, the same way he had done every morning since the age of 12, he did his mouthpiece drills. He did his warm ups. He practiced his usual routines, the same ones he tells his students they need to play every single day. He didn’t take the morning off. He just went on. He was and is a trumpet player and that’s what trumpet players do, come success or failure.

Less than a year later, he went on to win a position with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, where he played for three decades. Good thing he kept practicing.

So with my father’s example in mind, here I sit, coffee cup steaming in its mug and dog asleep at my feet, starting my work for the day, revising yet another script, working out yet another pitch, thinking of the future (the next project, the next election) because I’m a screenwriter, and that’s just what screenwriters do.

In the words of Ed Wood, “My next one will be BETTER!”

UPDATE, 2:10 PM: Conan the Barbarian script doctor Sean Hood has sent along to Deadline the following regarding his piece we told you about last night, focusing on the part that could have been construed as throwing the screenplay’s previous drafters under the bus:

“Actually my words “I made vast improvements on the draft that came before me” weren’t very classy because it does sound like I’m throwing the previous writers under the bus, and I need to publicly apologize to Thomas Dean Donnelly, Joshua Oppenheimer, and Andrew Lobel. All I can say is that I didn’t mean it that way and I should have chosen my words more carefully.

What I meant to say that I was proud of the work I did solving problems that that had emerged in the development process, over many years and dozens of drafts. To suggest that I did better work than the writers before me would be both un-classy and flat out incorrect.

Many people have read Thomas Dean Donnelly and Joshua Oppenheimer’s early drafts of Conan when it showed up on the internet, and a great, great number of them think theirs was the best draft of any, including the shooting script. Andrew Lobel’s draft was filled with great humor, which some critics thought the movie lacked.

I didn’t write this to point fingers. As the last writer on the project, the criticism of the story, dialogue, and characterization should fall primarily on me… not my peers, not producers, not studio executives, not the director.”

(me again – considering that he admits that he did not choose his words carefully may shed light into the overall problem.  However, that could just be me.)

The Obit We all Wish We Had

This was my July 8 2009 entry.  So good, it needs to be reposted occasionally.

Copied from UTNE. I want the author to write my obit.

“The good people at the mortality-centric website Obit scan death notices in newspapers far and wide. It’s a respectable mission, especially when it turns up gems like the obituary for “teetotaling mother and an indifferent housekeeper” Nancy Hixson. Want to know how to write an obituary? You can read the entire notice over at Obit. Don’t settle for this irresistible and inspiring taste:

(NANCY) LEE HIXSON of Danville, Ohio died at sunrise on June 30, 2009 … In addition to being a teetotaling mother and an indifferent housekeeper, she was a board certified naturopath specializing in poisonous and medicinal plants; but she would like to point out, posthumously, that although it did occur to her, she never spiked anyone’s tea. She often volunteered as an ombudsman to help disadvantaged teens find college funding and early opened her home to many children of poverty, raising several of them to successful, if unwilling, adulthood … She was the CEO of the Cuyahoga Valley Center of Outdoor Leadership Training, where she lived in a remote and tiny one-room cabin in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park. Despite the lack of cabin space and dining table, she often served holiday dinners to friends and relatives and could seat twenty at the bed. She lived the last twenty-three years at Winter Spring Farm near Danville where she built a private Stonehenge, and planted and helped save from extinction nearly 50 varieties of antique apple trees, many listed in A.J. Downing’s famous orchard guide of 1859 … She was predeceased by her father Dwight Edward Wood of the Ohio pioneer Wood family of Byhalia, who died in the Columbus Jail having been accused of a dreadful crime … Cremation has taken place. In lieu of flowers, please pray for the Constitution of the United States.

Onward Nancy Hixson, wherever you are.”

Here’s the whole thing:

http://obit-mag.com/articles/a-great-paid-death-notice